The Emile Heskey revival rolls on – and for Steve McClaren the future of England's Euro 2008 campaign is hitched to a Wigan striker who has scored five goals in 44 international games. Heskey starts alongside Michael Owen against Russia tonight in a retro-forward line that carries the hopes of the current England manager as it once did that of his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson.
A brave decision? Leaving out Peter Crouch, suspended for the Israel game on Saturday, would seem to chime with the old wisdom that you do not change a winning team. But when the team McClaren faces tonight are so different from the Israel team who offered scant resistance the question arises of whether Russia under Guus Hiddink will be quite so submissive against Heskey's muscular approach.
It is quite some change of heart that McClaren has made from barely three weeks ago, when he was not even considering Heskey for the friendly against Germany. From stopgap to first choice, the 29-year-old has found himself back in the England first XI on the basis of 90 minutes against Israel. Ninety minutes in which he blasted his one and only shot over the bar and played no significant role in any of England's three goals. Nice work if you can get it.
Perhaps the logic of sticking with the same XI who beat Israel was just too irresistible for McClaren once he lost Owen Hargreaves to injury on Monday night. Gareth Barry held his place in the centre of midfield and, as a result, it must have seemed simpler to keep the side intact.
What will England lose by leaving Crouch on the sidelines? He may not be as overtly physical as Heskey, but no one seriously believes that a Russian side coached by Hiddink will be intimidated by the Wigan man. England will miss the sureness of Crouch's touch and a much greater confidence to play balls in behind defences or spread possession wide. And by playing him as a substitute, the England manager stands to lose even more from a striker who has already spent much of the season on the bench.
Popular wisdom dictates that Crouch is an impact substitute, but that is wrong. His first two England goals against Uruguay and Hungary were scored when he came off the bench, but the subsequent 10 have all been scored when he started matches. Last season, Crouch scored 24 goals for Liverpool and England in the Community Shield, Premier League, Champions League, international friendlies and Euro 2008 qualifiers. All of them came in games he started.
Put simply, Crouch is in need of a manager who will show a little faith in him. Dropping him in favour of Alan Smith against Brazil in June was such a disaster that McClaren went straight back to Crouch for the Euro 2008 qualifier against Estonia five days later. Crouch obliged by leading the line, scoring a goal and helping to save England's season. Then he got booked and suspended for Saturday's Israel game. Such is the state of panic with England at the moment that whatever worked in the last game is grimly clung to in the hope that it will do the trick again.
Currently flavour of the month is Heskey who, despite the doubts, could be the salvation for English football and lead his side triumphantly to Austria and Switzerland next summer. But if he is the Messiah, then he has spent an awfully long time in the wilderness. If he was such a brilliant option, why has he languished outside the team for three years, largely forgotten by McClaren until a moment of emergency?
For Crouch, whether he likes it or not, it is time yet again to prove himself to McClaren. Just as he almost had to do after McClaren's first game in charge against Greece, before which the England manager had provisionally picked Dean Ashton until the striker broke his ankle in training. It happened again when Crouch had to win his place back from Smith in June. In the time it has taken Crouch to score 12 goals for England, Wayne Rooney has scored one. Would there be any argument about Heskey keeping his place if it was Rooney coming back tonight?
For McClaren, in particular, the shadow of Hiddink falls across this game. When he glances across to the opposite dugout, the England manager will see a man who has won one European Cup, six Dutch titles and led two different nations to fourth place at the World Cup – one of them South Korea. Some record. The Dutchman was managing the Netherlands when McClaren was first-team coach at Derby.
Given that Hiddink's name was higher than his own on the original shortlist to replace Eriksson, McClaren might have been forgiven for being slightly intimidated by his opposite number. But McClaren has never lacked belief in his right to be England manager and he dismissed the effect that Hiddink's reputation might have on the game.
"I think the players relate to players, they don't relate to managers," McClaren said. "They go out and look at their opponent. What we say is, 'Whoever you are against you have to win that battle'. Once they have crossed the white line they won't be thinking about what the [opposition] manager is doing or his reputation. They will be looking at the opposite number."
Brave words. Listening to McClaren over the last few months, it is clear that the man upon whom he relies the most is Steven Gerrard, who rescued him on that dark night against Andorra in March. It is a debt that McClaren will owe for ever and yesterday he declared that Gerrard will have "the freedom to be our inspiration" tonight. But even Gerrard will struggle to compensate if the Heskey-Owen partnership does not work out.
Unchanged melody A hit for England?
England are expected to field an unchanged team tonight for the first time in 39 matches, dating back more than three years. The last occasion was during Euro 2004 when Sven Goran Eriksson retained the starting XI who defeated Croatia 4-2 in the final group match. The unchanged team survived only 27 minutes before Wayne Rooney was injured. Without him England lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarter-finals after a 2-2 draw.
England v Croatia & Portugal (June 2004): James; G Neville, Terry, Campbell, A Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes; Rooney, Owen.